V is for vulgarity

Sin #21: To swear or not to swear…

Now I for one don’t swear, I don’t smoke and I certainly don’t drink alcohol.

Oh shit, I left my cigs in the pub.

Now if you can’t forgive me for that terrible joke, can you at least forgive me for swearing? I could have warned you about vulgar content in this post, a simple preamble informing you that the following content would contain cursing and obscenities…but then what would be the point in swearing?

Whether you like it or loathe it the majority of people swear, or have sworn at some point in their life. Swearing is as vital a part of a language as verbs, nouns and the dreaded adverb! Swearing can be fun, soothing and even medicinal – recent studies have shown that swearing can actually help relieve pain!

Of course swearing can also be hurtful, derogatory and insulting…or can it? If I call some a ‘stupid dickhead’ is that any more hurtful than calling them ‘stupid’? At least when I’m effin’ and blindin’ it’s obvious I’m angry, hurt or acting defensively. But if I called you ‘stupid’ in a calm and relaxed manner, wouldn’t that be more hurtful?

After all bad language is simply words with a negative meaning behind them – that’s right, behind them. A combination of letters can’t be hurtful. We didn’t climb out of the primordial soup only to be handed a list of taboo words and unmentionables.

We’re the reason words can be so hurtful because we instil a meaning behind the letters and punctuation marks, a connotation boiled down to a simple, easy to throw around, short combination of characters.

But what about using so-called vulgarity in your novel?

As much as some people hate to admit it, swearing can add something to a statement or a piece of dialogue. And it’s not just realism it brings to a story. A well-placed profanity can show true emotions; class; world attitudes; upbringing; family dynamic or friendship status; shock, horror and disbelief; and even a good sense of humour.

The key to using bad language effectively is placement. Simply dropping in swear words bloody left, bastard right and feckin’ centre can take away their power. The same goes for overuse. Having a character swear every third word might be realistic, according to real life, but it will affect the readability of your novel. Even people who enjoy a good curse word will find them boring if abused.

Obviously the same goes for overusing any word, it will stick out like a sore thumb – but it’s a bit more noticeable with swearing because we’re not as used to seeing those types of words within a novel.

To those who say swearing has no place in the English language at all, I think you’re just doing it wrong! Yes, it’s annoying when kids (oh my god, how old do I sound!) use the F-word every second letter, but that’s because they’re kids! If they weren’t swearing then they’d be saying “nice” or “innit” every second word which is equally annoying.

Don’t let them spoil it for the rest of us!

I’ll end this post with a wonderful quote from Stephen Fry, from Stephen Fry: Guilty, BBC4, September 8th 2007:

Swearing is a really important part of one’s life.

It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing and without enjoying swearing…

There used to be mad, silly, prissy people who used to say swearing was a sign of a poor vocabulary -such utter nonsense.

The people I know who swear the most tend to have the widest vocabularies and the kind of person who says swearing is a sign of a poor vocabulary usually have a pretty poor vocabulary themselves…

The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest or -is just a fucking lunatic…

I haven’t met anybody who’s truly shocked at swearing, really, they’re only shocked on behalf of other people. Well, you know, that’s preposterous… or they say ‘it’s not necessary’.

As if that should stop one doing it!

It’s not necessary to have coloured socks, it’s not necessary for this cushion to be here, but is anyone going to write in and say ‘I was shocked to see that cushion there, it really wasn’t necessary’?

No, things not being necessary is what makes life interesting -the little extras in life.


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    • CharmedLassie on April 26, 2011 at 16:13
    • Reply

    I was in a real dilemma during my last draft – does my protagonist swear or doesn't she? Is it necessary, is it going to put people off? But then I thought… well, she's been blown up and abandoned by the person she thought loved her. If she can't swear what the hell can she do?!

    If a reasonable character reaches a point where swearing is their only option then you've done a good job with evolution there.

    • Steven Chapman on April 26, 2011 at 16:20
    • Reply

    Yep, I've met people who are like that…

    "Well, I don't mind him skinning that family and playing tiddlywinks with their dried eyelids, but he didn't have to say 'damn you' when he did it!"

    If a character really does take over the story, like most writers like to say, then it's not really our decision whether they swear or not!

    • Linda H. on April 26, 2011 at 21:40
    • Reply

    Great post. Reminds me of my sister. When someone cuts her off or does something stupid while driving, all those words come rushing out. I think "what's the point? They can't hear you anyway." But I guess it makes her feel better.

    I'm curious as to what people think of using swear words in children's books. Not for young kids…I mean, for age 12. I have a real bad ass character that makes a short appearance. I am wondering if just one or two damn its and shits are okay at this age. After all, he is a low down scumbag, so he needs to act like one. Yet, I know some parents would get all in a tiff about it (as if they haven't heard worse on the school playground).

    • Shannon Lawrence on April 26, 2011 at 22:07
    • Reply

    Funny, I just had this conversation with someone else yesterday! I argued that it was a valid part of the English language, that each word had its own definition, and that sometimes there is no euphemism that will convey the same point as the profane word used. I made a brief attempt to remove profanity from my novel, but it sounded lame when I tried to fill in replacements. So then I said f*ck it. ;0p

    Good luck with the rest of the A to Z Challenge!

    • Nate Wilson on April 27, 2011 at 18:12
    • Reply

    I may not swear too too often, but my characters are going to fucking swear whenever they damn well please, thank you fucking much.

    But you are indeed right; the goal is not to overdo it. For instance, my current tally of 46 fucks may seem high to you, but if so, you're obviously a prude. They're only uttered (or used in the narration) by characters who are inclined to profanity, and appear roughly once every 2000 words.

    Vulgarity? Fuckin' A.

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